Wednesday, February 01, 2012

So What is Fast Writing?

Once in a while, someone will tell me they wish they could write as fast as I do. Over the years it’s occurred quite a few times, but I’m still a little surprised when it happens because I think of myself as a very slow writer. Of course, I’ve told other writers that I wished I could write as fast as they. That got me thinking about how exactly to define ‘fast’ writing.

Something that confounds the issue, of course, is the difference between writing and publishing. The last time someone made a comment to me about being a fast writer was right after Days of Beer and In the Language of Scorpions came out, and after I mentioned that Under the Ember Star would likely be published this year. That’s not fast writing, though. That’s fast publishing. A third of Days of Beer was completed a couple of years ago, and I wrote the rest throughout November and December of 2011. That’s probably close to 15,000 new words in two months, which is actually kind of fast for me. As for “Scorpions,” the majority of the stories in there were reprinted from earlier magazine publications. I did write a couple of new pieces for that book, and I completed a number of stories that had been in rough draft form, but the total number of new words in that book was fairly small. “Ember Star” was written mostly last summer, 30,000 words over several months. I didn’t even average 500 words a day.

In order to try and understand more about my own productivity, I decided this year to keep word count records. I know many writers who do this routinely but I’ve never really made an effort to do so before. Well, the first month’s data is in and here are the results:

I produced 8033 new words of material that I hope to get published. This counts stories, introductions to stories, and material about stories that might go into a publication. It doesn’t count blog posts or letters of recommendation or other writing that I do as part of my job and life, but which isn’t going to be put on any bibliography of my publications. Although I don’t know exactly what my average monthly output is, I feel comfortable saying that this was actually an above average month for me.

January has 31 days so my average daily output was 259 words a day. That’s a little misleading because I didn’t write every day. I didn’t keep “exact” notes on when I wrote or didn’t, but looking back over my journal it looks like I wrote material that I hoped to publish on about 20 days of the month. That would bring my average daily production count up to a whopping 402 words a day. According to my journal, on my best day in January I did “about a thousand words.” None of that suggests to me that I am a fast writer.

I also realized, though, that word count is only a partial record of writing activity. I do a lot of revising and rewriting on my stuff. In other words, on the days I wrote I tended to work a lot harder than a new word count of 402 would suggest.

So if I’m not a fast writer, who is? Stephen King? King says he writes about 2,000 words a day. Considering that he’s a full time writer while I’m not, even two thousand doesn’t seem all that fast. But if he writes six days a week, that would give him a production of 634,000 words a year, or one and a half books considering the size of his novels. To average a million words a year would require around 2740 words a day, every day. Since I don’t imagine anyone writers 365 days a year, we’re probably talking about million word a year folks averaging 3,000 words a day or better. Now that seems pretty fast to me, but I’d like to know how many hours a day this writer works, and how much revision they do.

So. Is Stephen King a fast writer? What does it take to be considered a fast writer? Is fast even about word count? Or it about an attitude? Is it about a writer wanting to churn out the biggest word count possible in the least amount of time necessary, without worrying about achieving anything more than the lowest level of quality needed to get it published? What do you think?
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39 comments:

Ty Johnston said...

My goal is to average 10,000 words a day. Yes, I realize that sounds nuts, but I'm only taking days into account in which I would actually be writing. I'm not thinking of days when I'm editing or taking a break or something comes up.

Last year I logged about 330,000 words of new fiction, which was a decent year for me. I'd like to top that this year, and am working to do so.

Is King a fast writer? Relatively, yes, though I'd say even he doesn't come close to some of the more prolific pulp writers, those living and passed on. At least King still writes his own novels, which doesn't seem to be the case for some of his literary peers who come up with a plot then foist it off onto some work-for hire writer.

Chris said...

Reasoner's probably already cracked a million for 2012. That dude's a writing machine.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I am learning it's really about steady and consistent writing habits as opposed to fast (sometimes marathon) output.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, then I would definitely consider you a fast writer. I've never approached 10,000 words in any single day. Yeah, the Patterson type of writer is fast publishing rather than fast writing.

Chris, he is indeed, and I know he spends a lot of hours at the keyboard to hit that number. He's not just typing them in.

Paul, for me as well. Definitely the important thing for me.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Thanks for this post, Charles. I was keen to learn about your writing method. I guess fast writing is about writing a lot and publishing it fast too. As a journalist, I write a lot during the course of the week but that's not fast writing, that's just writing. I'd associate fast writing with published writers.

Tyhitia Green said...

I took Stephen King's advice about writing at least 2000 words a day if you're a full time writer, and at least 1000 words per day if you have a full time job that does not involve writing.

I agree with Paul as well. It's about quality, not quantity.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I could probably manage 259 words a day.
I consider myself slow because it takes a year and a half to produce a decent manuscript that's barely 75,000 words long. And since I'm also a slow typist, I know my 30 wpm pales next to those who do over 100 wpm. I can't imagine typing that fast.

James Reasoner said...

I probably average about 3000 words a day, never really did the math. Work about seven hours a day. Anywhere from half an hour to two hours is spent editing and revising what I did the day before, the rest on producing new pages. Research and plotting happen outside those "working hours".

King is fairly fast, I suppose, but nowhere near as fast as some of the veteran paperbackers I've known.

Speed means nothing if you don't take it seriously and try to produce good work. At the same time you don't have the luxury of obsessing over something, which is often a blessing. I've known people who wrote and rewrote the same book for years, trying to get it "just right", before they would allow themselves to move on to something else.

Ron Scheer said...

Great post from you as usual. I am reminded of Anthony Trollope, who says he wrote 2,500 words between 6:00 and 8:30 every day, preceding that at 5:30 with an edit of the previous day's writing, and following with breakfast. He considered three hours enough for one day.

Deka Black said...

I'm finishing a anthology, hoping a fantasy publisher from here will get inetrested (if not, i will not give up, There's ways).

Anyway, i followed the advice of Stephen King: 1000 words each day. And worked for me.

But talking abour fast writers... to me, the perfect example is one of my favourite wordsmits:

Michael Moorcock have writed not one but many books of 60.000 words (average count) in only 3 days!

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, it was your comment on a previous post that kind of inspired this post so I appreciate the feedback. Still more thinking to do on the subject, of course.

Tyhitia, I find that in summer when I'm not teaching or doing much with school I can average between 1000 to 2000 most days. During the school year, not so much.

Alex, now I am a fast typist. I don't know exactly what my speed is but better than about 80 wpm. of course, during the writing process I'm seldom typing at top speed.

James, I'm glad you dropped by. I was hoping for your perspective and I know from talking to you before that you spend a lot of hours at the keyboard to get the word count you do. True about that obsessive thing. I know several writers like that myself. I'm perhaps 'slightly' obsessive but not to that extent, and I'm getting better at that.

Ron, I also like to start a day's work with editing the previous stuff if I'm not going to work. I certainly find that a 2 to 3 hour block of work is enough for me for a while and I'll have to take a break. But when I'm writing full time I often have at least 2 of those blocks, and sometimes 3.

Deka, Michael Moorcock is definitely an exceptional talent and i like a lot of his work. I will say, though, at times, that I think he has written too fast and a slower pace would have been better for him.

Deka Black said...

Yeah... From what i know, he writed so fast, well, for the money, is his work, and if my info is correct, he got paid by book or something like that: More books, more money

Lana Gramlich said...

I can't talk about speed, but I know you're the sexiest writer. ;)

BernardL said...

I think when you reach a word count where you're not enjoying the writing, you've gone beyond the 'fast writer' category into drudgery. I've read where Nora Roberts churns out a completed novel every 6 weeks. Well... God bless her busy little soul if the process is still enjoyable for her. JD Salinger only wrote one book. Although sacrilege to admit it, I found 'Catcher in the Rye' a torturous book to read as a high school teen. I hated the characters. I hated the plot. I hated the darkness. I was not his audience. Maybe if he had written fifty books, he would have figured out a way to create a likeable character. I've often wondered if JD quit writing because editing 'Catcher' was so horrendous he gave it up. :)

I guess my point is if you love what you write it doesn't really matter how many words you string together per day. If churning out a couple thousand a day makes you want to open a vein rather than open Word up, then that's a little too far. :)

James Reasoner said...

Bernard's absolutely right. If I wasn't having fun there's no way I'd be spending so much time at writing.

David J. West said...

Seems its all about perspective and being happy with what you do-and we all know how happy writers as people are.

I think of myself as a slow writer but I have marathon bouts that might make it seem like I get a lot done, but in my mind its not nearly enough, fast enough.

I need to reach a happy medium.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, my favorite stuff by Moorcock is his Castle Brass stuff.

Lana, thanks. You sweet.

Bernardl, good point. I would enjoy writing a little faster, I imagine. I'm also sure some writers can write faster by nature, and that some get faster as time goes on. I'm faster now than I used to be. Genre and plot makes a difference. There are all kinds of factors. I didn't like Catcher in the Rye either. Thought the character needed a good ass whupping.

James, I'm glad you are because I sure have fun reading it! :)

David J., I've become better at excepting what I do and being satisfied but still one, or I at any rate, always would like to have a bit more. Just in my nature, I guess.

Deka Black said...

Castle Brass? Funny you say that, because is in my plans of future reading! just after i finisf Winds of Flame By Norvell W, Page

G said...

I am about as fast as a kid stuck at the dinner table with plate full of cauliflower.

More often than not, my writing output averages about 10 words a day, and that's when I'm in a good mood.

Back when I was motivated (does motivation come in cycles?) writing the current novel I'm shopping around, I averaged about 600 words a day.

I guess being a fast writer boils down to how much a given story motivates you to write.

Cloudia said...

Took me a decade to write a 144 page book. "Easy to read" "Very well written" "When is the next one?"
(Love that last! :-)

It just LOOKS easy, but is really arduous to me



Warm Aloha from Waikiki
Comfort Spiral

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Travis Cody said...

I think the only time I've ever considered myself a fast writer is when a poem springs to mind fully conceived and all I have to do is get to a piece of paper or a keyboard and get the words out of my head.

Other than that, I plod.

Harry Markov said...

I have a rather timid pace. I have good periods with 1K to 2K+ writing and then extremely longer periods of time, where I write nothing, because I'm engaged with something else, usually real life and other commitments keep me occupied.

ivan said...

...Don't know about this.

Sometimes information comes from non-writers-- and the strangest sources.

In my own writing career, back in the Flintstone days of the typewriter, I would be living proof of "less is more" theory by throwing away two-thirds of most first drafts. The thing was not to achieve more with less, but to somehow, compulsively, to get it right, to get it fine-tuned, true to itself and more of a song than a statement. The heart of the matter, if you will.
To which a non-writer, oddly a former felon, added, "All writers are dickheads.
"There is this compulsion impulse...It has to be just so, or not at all."

Well. Here I thought I was trying to be D.H. Lawrence.

I guess to the non-writing person, it must have seemed to him that I was more like a plain D.H.

the walking man said...

I was told that Larry McMurtry writes 6 pages a day. No more no less. That sounds like a fast writer to me.

I know a young woman who wrote 8000 words in 24 hours, when we went to edit it, it needed very little word changing but a lot of punctuation.

I wrote twice, over 100,000 words in less than three weeks but it was shit and even after 5 edits it is still shit so that was a waste of 6 weeks. I did NaNoWriMO one year just because, I started 4 days late and finished 3 days early. It was a decent story but to be honest I am more amazed by it because a lot of the things I wrote about have actually come to pass.

So now I write between 100 and 500 words a day almost every day. Is that fast? Slow? I don't know, all I do know is that however fast I write it is a comfortable pace for me. Which makes it fast enough to be exactly right speed wise.

For you? I say with all of the things you do write in the course of any given year I would say whether published or needing to comeback to you are qualified as a fast writer.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, the Norvell page book is excellent. I read it years ago. There's a sequel called "Sons of the Bear God," at least over here.

G., sometimes work means I only get a few words a day as well. Definitely I think motivation comes in cycles.

Cloudia, yeah, it's nice to have folks want your next work, but then you have to write it. :) And that is not the easy part.

Travis Cody, I have had poems, and occasionally short prose pieces that zing off my fingers. I love when it happens but it isn't often.

Harry Markov, when I'm able to write full time (summers), I generally average between 1 and 2 thou. Otherwise I'm typically a lot slower

Ivan, I throw a lot of stuff away too, excess I think of it, though who knows in the big scheme of things.

Mark, I've never tried the Nano thing because I just don't think I could produce anything worthwhile at the pace needed to complete it. But it would be a good experience for me probably. I may try it one year.

sage said...

I generally have to write about 3000 words a week for work--and probably another 1000 or so for pleasure, is that fast?

Oscar said...

Everyone who writes EVERY DAY, no matter how many words, is a fast writer in my judgement.

jodi said...

Charles-It seems to me that the most productive way to write is the one that works best for you. Getting your writing to say what you want, is the right speed for you.

The Golden Eagle said...

I think it's less the word count and more how often those words are actually worth something. First drafts can be produced at record rates, but unless the writer produces perfect content the first time around, much or all of it will probably get deleted. Polishing takes time regardless of how fast the draft was finished.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, probably not, I'd say. I come close to that for work, I'd guess. Somewhat less probably.

Oscar, I can see that argument.

Jodi, that's probably true overall. I think a lot of writers think about ways to speed up their productivity, but it probably isn't always practical.

Golden Eagle, that's a good point. Different writers write different levels of rough draft. One who writes rough rough drafts will be faster, but it may all equal out in time later on.

laughingwolf said...

seems a big difference between 'words a day', and 'publishable words a day', and you count the latter, what with all your edits and rewrites... pretty awesome, considering that :)

Angie said...

I think a lot of people who talk about fast or slow writers are thinking about weekly or monthly product, rather than actual speed as in how fast someone can pound out the words. Being a faster writer isn't about being a faster typist, or not much. It's about being a more productive writer. There are two parts to that -- one is spending more time with your butt parked in front of the keyboard, period, and the other is being able to let the story flow, solving problems quickly as they come up.

Think about it -- if you can write about 1000 words per hour when you get going, then one hour a day is 365,000 words per year. That's four fat novels a year working at a pace a major loafer would approve of.

A thousand words an hour isn't blindingly speedy, and in fact most writers I've heard/read talk about their speed hit somewhere near there, often a bit over. So productivity seems to have little or nothing to do with one's writing speed, once one is actually in front of the keyboard and writing. The trick seems to be applying seat of pants to seat of chair and fingers to keyboard.

From that POV, I think you're doing great. You're a full time professor, you do academic writing that you're not counting here, and blogging, and you have other activities, like the walks you take with Lana where she shoots those awesome pictures of hers. Your fiction is written around the edges, and you seem to make decent use of those edges.

Angie

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, there's definitely a difference between words and publishable words. I don't know how to quantify that. Not that it needs to be necessarily. I just like thinking about such things.

Angie, thanks for the kind words. the issue has so many parts to it that it's probably not worth pursuing very far. As you mention, productivity once you're in the chair, time in the chair, etc etc. Lana does take some amazing photos!

Erik Donald France said...

A publishable page a day sounds pretty excellent to me, on avaerage and if sustained.

Fast would be like those poor dudes who really had to pound out a living say in the 1800s, Dickens, Balzac, Dosteoevsky. They either wrote fast or wrote much of the time. King does seem fast. You seem very disciplined to me, regardless of exact speed.

Christina said...

That is something for me to focus on. I want to be a faster writer, have better thought out stories to begin with so it doesn't take me so long to rewrite and clean-up.

I also need to focus on one or two projects at a time and stop my mind from drifting in so many directions on so many different stories.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't understand how anyone can write that fast (as King) unless the real writing is done in rewriting.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, a publishable page a day is good when you can get it for sure. yeah, or the guys writing for the pulps who pounded out the words. Although some of them wrote lots of hours I'm sure.

Christina, I've gotten a lot better over time about focusing on a single work until it is done and not letting myself get too distracted. That helps quite a bit, I think with productivity overall.

Patti, that's the other thing we'd need to know, how much rewriting is done and how much first draft remains.

Angie said...

Patti -- if you assume someone who writes full time, as in having no day job, it's not really weird. Figure, if you can write about a thousand words per hour, and you have eight hours per day to work (or more if you use the time most people spend commuting, but let's just say eight) then working only half time gives you over a million words a year. And that assumes you need the other four hours a day for editing and submitting doing contracts or finances, and promo and other work-related activities. That million words a year is writing half time.

If you want to kick it into turbo, like Isaac Asimov famously did, he wrote eight hours a day with no days off, which would give you over two million words per year. (He used to say he took his birthday off each year, but later confessed that was a lie because people didn't want to believe he wrote every day.)

Writing a thousand words an hour isn't particularly fast. I can get up to 1200-1300 per hour or even a bit more if the story is flowing. And that's good words, that only need some sandpaper for spelling and such after. "Writing fast," as in publishing more than one book a year, isn't about writing fast. It's about spending more time writing, at whatever rate you produce words. Someone who has a day job and a family and a vegetable garden and volunteer work is probably doing really well to get one novel out every other year. Someone who's single and a full time writer and only writes two novels a year is obviously spending a lot of time doing something else.

There are too many factors to be able to just say off the top of your head that someone writes too fast or too slow or whatever. But given some very basic requirements -- mainly enough free time and butt-in-chair work habits -- most people probably could produce like Stephen King.

Angie

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, good points. I know that's how James Reasoner gets to a million. Lots of hours with butt in chair. Even when writing long hours I don't average 1000 good words an hour. But I tend to be kind of obsessive and I also really enjoy the revision process. Still 3000 words a day, as James talks about doing, in a 6 to 8 hour period of time is definitely not fast writing, just consistent.